by Steven Hale
In this week's issue of The City Paper, I report on the Senate District 20 race between Republican Steve Dickerson and Democrat Phillip North. So, in light of the state's announcement this morning that it will withhold $3.4 million from Metro Nashville Public Schools for repeatedly defying the state and rejecting Great Hearts Academies' charter application, here's how the two feel about the matter.
It should be noted, I suppose, that when I spoke to North and Dickerson, the process was still being played out. I interviewed Dickerson last Tuesday morning, before the Metro school board's final rejection of Great Hearts. I met with North after that decision, on Wednesday morning.
Still, while the two are coming from different sides on charters and vouchers — Dickerson sees them as part of a solution, North says he's skeptical of both, but listening — they took a similar view on local autonomy. Full responses on the matter from each, after the jump.
“That’s a conflict between two pretty strongly held beliefs. But the first is, government closest to whoever’s the governed, is going to be more responsive. And I’d rather have to talk to my council member if there were an important issue, than I would have to talk to a U.S. senator. Because smaller population, you’ve got more of his attention, I think that it works well. And so I do believe that what is best done in the city or the state shouldn’t be done on the federal level — level we need to facilitate local districts, give them the opportunity to adopt those. And when they choose not to, it needs to be a very well thought-out action before we ever step on the autonomy of local school districts.” I mean, the whole concept of federalism down to the local level.
"And when the local authorities choose not to follow something that I support on a state level, that’s where the conflict lies. Does that take my whole belief in federalism and throw it into disarray or do I stick with my philosophy? And I think the answer is, on a state level, we need to facilitate charter schools, things like vouchers, and school choice. I don’t think any of those are the answer but part of the answer. I think those chip away at a very large impediment, the way our public schools function. And I think on a state level we need to facilitate local districts, give them the opportunity to adopt those. And when they choose not to, it needs to be a very well thought-out action before we ever step on the autonomy of local school districts.”
Asked to clarify which side he would come down on when presented with that choice, Dickerson added:
“If I had to come down on one side of that, I would go more toward my governing philosophy. ... The fact is, if you have a district or a school board that repetitively makes big mistakes and does things that are counter to the welfare of the students, you can make an argument down the road that you might need to intercede, but I don’t think that the Metro school board — while I disagree with them wholeheartedly on this — I don’t think they’re to that point yet.”
“Some people in the state feel like that the city exists at the pleasure of the state authority, and without state authority the city can be abolished. I think that’s a little extreme. My political philosophy is that politics should be local. The more control you can give the person in his neighborhood, and the more his vote counts locally, the better our democracy works. So I think the power should be delegated down to the city and the local level wherever possible, if there’s not some kind of fundamental right involved.”
“I think that, as far as the school board is concerned, the thing that troubles me is that our local school board in Nashville are elected by the people. And I understand the school board on the state level is appointed, by the governor. In general, I favor an elected body, who’s responsible to the people, to be making important decisions. So I would be inclined to defer to the local school board, a lot of whom are actually professional teachers. They have the expertise, and I trust their judgment.”
Since the announcement of the state's action this morning, Dickerson has released a statement commending the decision. The North campaign has not released a statement, or responded to requests for comment, as of this writing.
At the time of our interview, Dickerson told me that he agreed with Gov. Bill Haslam's previous statements that it wasn't yet time to create a statewide charter authorizer. However, this morning, Joey Garrison reports that Haslam didn't rule out the possibility, and said "we'll have to see how the General Assembly reacts to that this year."
Update: North has released a statement opposing the state's action.